Summer Camp for Little Atheists

Every once in a while, when looking for something to read, I ask myself, “What is something that I wouldn’t normally read? What just ‘isn’t me’?”

Recently that book was Confessions of a Shopaholic. Cue sneers.

A year or so ago it was The God Delusion, by prominent atheist Richard Dawkins.

Needless to say, I didn’t finish either of them, but did get through quite a bit! Dawkins’ book was intriguing, for sure. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a world where the other 95% of the population is deluded, so he must feel like a pioneer of sorts. In one sense I appreciated the book. For those who decide to be atheists, or that they always have been, the book is very validating and supportive when people may feel shunned from their families or communities. I also learned a ton about evolution, which is always interesting. I also agreed with a lot of his arguments against the Protestant views of God, which was kind of funny.

What I didn’t like was his arrogant tone that often sounds like, “if you don’t think like I do, then you’re a complete idiot” (or more specifically, mentally ill). Granted, a tone like this makes the book more exciting, but I think Dawkins ultimately shoots himself in the foot in trying to appeal to believers. While trumpeting free and independent thinking on one hand, he tells everyone what they should be thinking.

Back to the title of the post. Recently, Dawkins opened up a summer camp in the UK for atheists. All the usual summer camp stuff (whatever that is… canoeing?), except for instead of Bible study groups, these campers will learn about rational skepticism (good), moral philosophy (very good), and evolutionary biology (great). They will also learn to disprove things like crop circles (fine, but how can they really enjoy any Shyamalan moves then?). The camp will also teach the kids that if they are religious, it may prevent moral behaviour.

What peaked my interest in the article was when Dawkins said the camp was designed to “encourage children to think for themselves,” and the father of two camp attendees said “I’m very keen on not indoctrinating them with religion or creeds.”

The problem I see here is Dawkins (in my experience) most definitely does not encourage people to think for themselves, but rather, to think like he does. Kids at this camp will most certainly be indoctrinated. Keep in mind this is NOT, in any way, an argument against atheism, atheists, non-theists, agnostics, deists, cultists, or otherwise. I only wish to point out that Dawkins’ camp seems a little too similar to Jesus Camp. He smacks of religious fundamentalism, only without the religion. Reading his book felt like debating with a hard-core Calvinist. Different topic, same kick you in the teeth tactics. Calvin may damn you to hell for your views, but that’s sometime in the distant future. Dawkins straight away tosses you into the loony bin.

Some questions:

  • Is it possible to teach children without “indoctrinating” them? Is it just part of their development to take everything Authority says in their life hook line and sinker?
  • For any atheists and/or agnostics out there, any recommended reading?

About shenpa warrior

"Patience is not learned in safety." View all posts by shenpa warrior

17 responses to “Summer Camp for Little Atheists

  • Andrew

    while this is your entire point, arguably, I’d point out you classify Camp Quest foully and this is something that people like Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist keep trying to inform about. Mehta takes a staunch stance against it being called an “atheist camp” lol…as you can see here

    this isn’t about telling kids to read the God Delusion, or telling them to make Dawkins’ ideology their ideology. For one thing, while Dawkins is the primary donor for Camp Quest in the UK, remember that Camp Quest has been going on in the US and Canada since 1996. So I mean, it’s possible that Dawkins might twist the camp for the UK edition, but this has a longstanding tradition of not being Dawkins-esque.

    Finally, my comment probably is already going to go to the spam bin for so many links, but I had watched a youtube from Dale McGowan precisely about his attempts to teach children without indoctrinating them (from what I remember, it involves presenting multiple options alongside the option that the parent personally believes, while encouraging the children to meet with trusted relatives or friends who believe in these other options, etc.,)

    McGowan wrote “Parenting Beyond Belief,” so I guess there’s a book you can read. I haven’t read it though, lol. I’m notoriously poorly read for an atheist.

  • adamf

    No spam! I have a 3-link limit. 🙂

    Thanks for the links. I suppose they are tired of having to explain that. Perhaps I should re-title my post: “Why Richard Dawkins is a Fundamentalist, and here is a non-atheist camp he donated to.” 😉

  • Andrew

    no, you need more saucy scintillating titles for SEO and traffic!

  • adamf

    I learned it from you!

    I love how one of the original articles said Dawkins was setting up the camp to “groom” atheists. Note that “groom” is the same term used for sexual predators manipulating others. Some underlying prejudice against non-theists?

  • Jon A

    “I can’t imagine what it must be like to live in a world where the other 95% of the population is deluded…”

    But you do live in a world where the other 99.9% of the population doesn’t share your LDS beliefs. I don’t see why, then, it’d be difficult to imagine a world where you only disagree with 95% of the population.

    I’m reminded of a Richard Dawkins quote, which you may have read in The God Delusion: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in, some of us just go one god further.”

    I partly (and yes, only partly) disagree with your characterization of Dawkins as arrogant and close-minded. But more than anything, I just find those accusations tiresome. I hear it all the time and I fear that religious people (not you, necessarily) use the perceived tone of arrogance as an excuse not to address his arguments. Dawkins could have been more tactful, sure, but believers also bear some blame for “shooting the messenger.” To borrow a Mormon addage: Atheism is perfect, even though it’s members aren’t. 😉

    In (brief) defense of Dawkins: He did NOT want his book to be entitled “The God Delusion.” That was his editor’s choice, and he was against it. The God Delusion title won out with the publisher, however, as it’d translate into bigger sales.

    That said, he has called religious people “deluded.” But to be “deluded” simply means to be deceived or sorely mistaken. I fail to see how that’s terribly offensive. Being very familiar with Dawkins, I don’t believe he has ever claimed that religious people are “mentally ill” or belong in the “loony bin,” but I am amenable to correction.

    I can empathize with claims that Dawkins is sometimes over-confident, but I think the term “fundamentalist” is unfair. Dawkins has repeatedly acknowledged that he doesn’t know with infallible certainty that no gods exist. He admits the possibility in their existence, but argues that that possibility is infinitesimally small. You may disagree with his conclusion that god(s) is/are unlikely, but it’s not as though he just dogmatically asserts that fact–he makes a case for that claim (namely, his book).

    Just as it’d be unfair to call you a fundamentalist for rejecting Allah, Zeus, Thor, Vishnu, fairies, et al, it is unfair to call Dawkins a fundamentalist for his atheism.

    If the “atheist fundamentalist” moniker fairly applies to anyone, it’d be Christopher Hitchens.

    I do totally agree, however, with your suggestion that kids can’t help but be “indoctrinated.” I’ve always differed with Dawkins on that point. But some forms of indoctrination are preferable to others. I would sooner want kids to learn evolutionary biology, ethics, and skepticism than the nonsense I heard taught in Jesus Camp–you and I both, I’m sure.

    And finally, as to your recommended reading section:

    I earlier recommended “A Brief Introduction to Atheism” to you. It’s short and a good read.

    Other great books on atheism include:

    “Natural Atheism” by David Eller

    “Atheist Universe” by David Mills

    “Atheism Explained” by David Ramsay Steele

    “The Case Against God” (and old classic) by George H. Smith

    Some of these are less relevant to you as a liberal Mormon. Mills’ “Atheist Universe,” for instance, is a fun and informative read, but it’s geared more to Christians and creationists. “The Case Against God” is a more general case for nonbelief, but some may find its philosophical depth difficult to tread. Nothing that you couldn’t handle in any case.

    If you’re just looking for a brief read on atheism, and one with a more amiable tone, “A Very Short Introduction to Atheism” by Dr. Julian Baggini is your best bet.

    I can assure you that you’d find any of these reads more palatable and persuasive than The God Delusion. I respect and admire Dawkins’ work, but I frankly wish that his book wasn’t the “go-to” book on atheism.

  • Twitted by TheUFOGuy

    […] This post was Twitted by TheUFOGuy […]

  • adamf

    Great comment Jon, I would expect nothing less!

    I can see how many would hold up Dawkins’ perceived arrogance (or Hitchens, or whomever) as an excuse not to address his arguments. I wish to avoid that so I thank you for the book recommendations.

    “Atheism is perfect, even though it’s members aren’t.”

    I love it!

    I’m not surprised about the title (do you know what title he wanted?). Even Grant Palmer didn’t want his book to be titled “An Insider’s Guide To Mormon Origins.” I could be wrong here, but I thought Dawkins made it pretty clear in his book that believers were indeed suffering from a delusion, and spelled out the definition in his book. I should cut him some slack though, I think he uses terms like that to sell books, just like I titled my post the way I did to attract more attention that it would have otherwise. Shameless. 😉

    I used the term fundamentalist only from my viewpoint, in that certain types of people all feel the same to talk to, or read, or listen to. I had often wondered, what do they have in common? After debating a bit with an anti-Mo Calvinist, I realized it was some kind of approach or overbearing attitude and near-inflexibility – not necessarily their beliefs. Granted, I have not personally talked to Dawkins, so I can’t REALLY say. Another term is fine, it just needs to capture that feeling. Hah! There I go again with the feelings. 🙂

    I respect and admire Dawkins’ work, but I frankly wish that his book wasn’t the “go-to” book on atheism.
    Agreed! I felt the same way about Jon Krakauer’s book on polygamy and violence. It has seemed like the go-to book on LDS history for some, which is unfortunate, despite the fact that it’s a decent book in its own right.

  • WayBeyondSoccerMom

    My children are attending their third Camp Quest in four years this summer. That’s three weeks, total, in four years. During those entire four weeks, they slept about 1/3 of the time, ate, swam, hiked, kayaked, goofed around, for almost 2/3rds of that time. Wait, add that up. That seems like almost the entire time of the camp. Oh, yeah, they also got to hang out with other kids who are being raised by “similar in thought” parents, realizing that they aren’t the only ones out there.

    My kids have a chance to have thoughtful, deep conversations with kids their ages, along with counselors, about things they have kept bottled up inside for 51 weeks of the year.

    We have taught our kids to respect the opinions of our relatives, our neighbors, our schools, and our community. Compare this to my children’s cousins and classmates who spend one hour at church every week, one hour at church youth group every week, one hour at Wednesday services every week, along with driving past the numerous churches that seem to be on every corner, along with weekly Christian summer camps held non-stop between June and August.

    Give my kids some slack. I was so happy to learn about Camp Quest four years ago. When I told my kids it existed, they were thrilled to attend, and have been excited to return every year.

    They attend other summer camps, too, (all secular in nature) but Camp Quest is, by far, the one that they can’t wait to return to.

    Think about how my kids feel, having relatives tell them they are going to hell when they die. Attending funerals of loved ones and hearing a minister talk about an afterlife, when their parents have just told them that people only live on in memories.

    Here’s my recommendation for you: listen to / watch Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God”.

    My entire family has listened to her moving story, of letting go of God, many times.

    You may remember Julia from her time on Saturday Night Live.

    Be sure to check out Julia’s Discussion Forum as well.

  • Jon A


    I hope I don’t mischaracterize Adam’s position, but Adam doesn’t seem to be arguing that Camp Quest is bad or that it doesn’t serve an important function in catering to a disaffected minority like atheists. Adam actually applauded some of the objectives of Camp Quest.

    In my reading of Adam’s post, it isn’t so much about Camp Quest as it is about indoctrination; Camp Quest is just a launching pad for his question: “Is it possible to teach children without “indoctrinating” them?” So Adam isn’t impugning your and other atheists’ parenting skills, nor is he saying that atheists are uniquely guilty of indoctrination–just the opposite: EVERYONE is guilty of it.

    Indoctrination does not depend, I think, on the content of what is being taught. It depends, instead, on how the content is being learned. By way of example: I could teach a four-year old to “think for herself.” The message itself–“think for yourself”–is not a dogmatic one. But the fact that the kid receives that message blindly makes it indoctrination. Does that make sense?

  • Jen

    “Think about how my kids feel, having relatives tell them they are going to hell when they die. Attending funerals of loved ones and hearing a minister talk about an afterlife, when their parents have just told them that people only live on in memories.”

    It is similar to how my kids feel when they are told that there is no afterlife and they will never see or know their grandpa or aunt who died when they were young. I know that if I had relatives telling my kids that they were going to hell when they die, I would talk to the relatives and make it clear what our beliefs are and if they didn’t respect them, I wouldn’t allow them to see them if they insist on speaking things like that to my kids.

    The reality is that it is the same on both sides of the fence. I don’t want my kids to believe they will never see their loved ones again and that they are just a memory just as much as you don’t want your kids to believe there is an afterlife. Parents have to teach their kids and then expect others to respect their teachings. If others continue to not do this, they the parents need to decide what is best to do in relation to being around relatives who behave that way.

  • adamf

    Hi WayBeyondSoccerMom! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think it’s great what your kids have experienced at the camp. I especially love that they are able to have those deep thoughtful conversations, especially since it seems that many kids do not. I can see why you would feel defensive (e.g. “give my kids some slack”) about this, given you have relatives who tell your kids they are going to hell. Hogwash I say. I am all for anything that, as atheists or otherwise, that provides happiness and growth and for the ability to live life fully. Keep it up!

    Jon, exactly! My point is definitely about indoctrination and fundamentalist type thinking, not theology or etc. I think atheists can be just as good of parents or camp leaders as anyone else, and even better in some cases. Re: indoctrination, I agree, it is not so much the content but the process. Thanks for following up on this, as I have been on the road the whole day.

    Jen – Either way seems a bit like indoctrination to me. Telling your kids straight out, “your grandma is just a memory now” or “you will see her again” are the same thing to me. Of course I plan on teaching my kids my beliefs and values, but I am definitely going to include with that what other people believe, e.g. “I believe we will be able to see grandma again, but there are others who feel that this life is it and therefore we really need to make the most of it right now. What do you think?” I wouldn’t want my relatives (who would be authority figures to young children) to just spell things out as if it was the absolute truth on any matter.

  • renchau

    Yes, it is possible to teach without indoctrination. The teaching of critical thinking skills as advocated by CQ is antithetical to indoctrination. I think it is safe to assume that you accept that the earth goes about the sun, that viruses can make you sick, and that chlorophyll is vital for photosynthesis. The same evidence-based system of logic that was used to figure out those facts is further extended in an effort to explain fully the Natural Universe all around us. Unlike with religious indoctrination, the secular, science-based teaching does not fall back onto the supernatural when confronted with the unknown. While there are some secular scientists who will cling desperately to their beliefs in spite of new evidence, their actions are an exception to the scientific methodology.
    Adherents to a religion make it a matter of practice to default to their supernatural beliefs and only have selective acceptance that the scientific methodology works. The amount of acceptance is seemingly dependent on how soon they were exposed to science. The sooner things are explained to a child in a manner without involving a god, the more likely it seems that she will not default to looking toward a god as a reasonable explanation for the unknown.
    To teach children tenets of unwavering faith is indoctrination. Teaching children the tools of critical thinking and observational skills, that allow them to form opinions on their own (which may well result in a god acceptance) is not indoctrination.

  • Steven

    Dawkins is one loud, caustic voice of reason in an ocean of superstition.

    I’d say that most religious camps do not encourage questioning of their doctrines, although I’ve seen that in some Jewish and Buddhist circles. Scientists seem more readily, in theory, to adjust their views based on physical evidence whereas many religionists tend to drag their feet in the face of strong evidence…traditionally.

    However, Dawkins is simply a staunch materialist and despises the tendency for 95% of his species to live through a form of consciousness that includes things beyond what the physical senses can validate.

    Surly, the modern “Aristotelian” view has brought us great material advances, but the human psyche is more subjective being than objective. This is why a totally objective consciousness cannot fully describe the human or the rest of reality. This is the ego’s wish — to “obectify” all things. The assumption is that if we can think it and label it, we can control it.

    In fact, one thing the rational mind is constantly plagued by is its own subjectivity unperceived.

  • adamf

    Great comment Steve. I don’t know if I can objectify it enough to be able to respond. 😉 Interesting thoughts on the drive to objectify being related to control… In Buddhist thought, would that fall under attachments that ultimately only cause suffering?

  • Alice

    My oldest will be getting baptized next month, and my Mister and I have gone back and forth over wanting him to be baptized, and wanting him to choose it for himself.

    I hope that we are teaching him why we believe what we do, and also teaching him to act based on what he feels is right.

    I find it amusing when we react to people who we disagree with by using the same tactics we don’t want used on us. It’s too hard of a concept for many, that we all have our experiences that make us who we are, and that just because we disagree, doesn’t automatically mean there’s a right and wrong.

  • adamf

    I’m not sure how I feel about the 8 year-old baptism issue. I am fine with mine, but I stayed on the same path, so to speak. Do you think 8 is old enough to make that kind of decision without any indoctrination at work, or do we all just need to admit there is a little Dawkins/Jesus Camp in all of us?

  • adamf

    renchau, thanks for your comment. For some unknown reason (supernatural? Lol) it got stuck in the spam filter.

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